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Steven Westlake   BSc MSc PhD

Dr Steven Westlake



Research Fellow

School of Psychology

Tower Building, 70 Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3AT


I am a post-doctoral researcher completing an ESRC Fellowship. My research explores how leading by example with high-impact, low-carbon actions can influence others' behaviours and attitudes towards climate change. For instance, when someone high profile like Greta Thunberg stops flying because of climate change, how does this affect our thinking and our actions? In contrast, if politicians travel by private jets or helicopters when there are lower-carbon options, how does this impact their leadership credibility? 

In the research I ask the questions

  • What happens if politicians, celebrities and business leaders make visible changes to their own lifestyles by flying less, eating less meat, improving the efficiency of their homes, and driving electric cars?
  • Do others follow their example?
  • What signals does it send about the leaders’ commitment to tackling climate change?
  • Can leading by example speed up the transition to a low-carbon society?

My results suggest that leading by example sends powerful signals that encourage others to follow-suit, while greatly increasing leader credibilty and approval. The research provides insights into how social influence and leadership can feed into the necessary and rapid transition to more sustainable lifestyles, contributing to ongoing debates about “individual action versus systems change”. I draw on theories of social influence, cultural evolution, leadership theory and practice theory. Underpinning the research is the idea that “action is communication”.


The Conversation: Why billionaires should take the lead and declare their own emissions cutting targets (Westlake, 2024)

Academy of Social Sciences: Climate change 2024: The need for more inclusion, fairness, and leadership (Westlake & Verfuerth, 2023) 

The Conversation: How world leaders’ high-carbon travel choices could delay climate action (Westlake 2021)

The Conversation: Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference (Westlake, 2019)

The Independent: How even the smallest act can help fight climate change (Westlake, 2019)







We often hear calls for “leadership” to address the climate crisis. Take David Attenborough’s speech at the 2018 UN climate conference (COP24) where he said: “Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.” But the precise meaning of “leadership” – and what leaders should actually do – is rarely defined. My research focusses on one crucial but under-researched aspect of leadership: leading by example with low-carbon behaviour.

This is of particular interest to me for several reasons. First, I have been influenced by someone who stopped flying because of climate change and I'm interested in the extent of this kind of influence. It's an under-researched area, despite well established knowledge about the influence of leaders. Second, there is an ongoing debate about whether we should focus on individuals making changes, or on changing the systems within which we live. My research suggests this is a false dichotomy because our actions (particuarly if we are in leadership positions) send strong signals to others. Third, many climate leaders have very high carbon footprints, which seems to present a "leadership contradiction" when the population needs to move rapidly to a very low-carbon future. It's a fascinating and sometimes challenging research area.  

This research builds on my Masters Degree research entitled “A Counter-Narrative to Carbon Supremacy: Do Leaders Who Give Up Flying Because of Climate Change Influence the Attitudes and Behaviour of Others?



I have come back to academia after careers in computing, journalism and communication. My previous employers include Shell, Honda, Dennis Publishing, the Climate Change Committee, and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). 

This unusual career trajectory informs my current reseach on decision making, motivation, and social influence.  

Postgraduate Education

Cardiff University (2018-2022). PhD Psychology

Birkbeck University (2015-2017). MSc Climate Change Management (Distinction)

Undergraduate Education

Manchester University (1990-1993). Degree: BSc Hons Computer Science (2:1)


Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) (Oct 2022 - Aug 2023) Knowledge Exchange Associate

Climate Citizens project, Lancaster University (Oct 2022 - July 2023) Research Associate

Climate Change Committee (CCC) (Feb 2016 – August 2018) Communications Officer

Cyclist Magazine, Dennis Publishing (Jun 2013 - Feb 2016) Production Editor

Men's Health magazine (Nov 2011 - May 2013) Chief Sub Editor

Repsol Honda MotoGP Team (2006 - 2010) Communication and PR Manager

Bike Magazine (1997 - 2006) Staff Writer -> Deputy Editor

Shell UK (1993 - 1997) Computer Systems Analyst



  • Leadership
  • Leading by example
  • Behaviour Change